Spring 1974. America was still reeling from the Watergate scandal, and Jaws – a Melville-esque yarn of three men in a boat who take on a leviathan – was sitting at the top of the bestseller list. A 27-year-old director, a relative unknown called Steven Spielberg, was hired to shoot the film version and, quixotically, wanted to make it in the sea rather than in a tank in a Universal back lot.
Martha’s Vineyard, sitting off Cape Cod, was chosen to portray “Amity”, the white-picket idyll into which the finned wrecking ball smashes, thanks to its shallow seabed from which Spielberg could mobilise a 7.6-metre mechanical monster.
But mercurial as a Hollywood diva, Bruce the shark (named after Spielberg’s lawyer), variously sank, malfunctioned and conspired with the elements to triple the budget and stretch a 55-day shoot into a 159-day torment. Not that the islanders minded, for while the rest of America was gripped by economic gloom, they were handsomely paid as extras and called upon to provide accommodation, catering and transport.
The Movie That Saved A Town
In fact, many an ailing business (such as The Kelley House Hotel, where the crew stayed) was saved almost overnight by the Tinseltown transfusion; not since the golden age of whaling in the mid-19th Century had the Vineyard’s fortunes been transformed in such spectacular fashion.
Jaws was released four decades ago (June 1975), and I went to track down the locations and explore the island you see today, using Edgartown – Amity in the film – as my base.
Edgartown has memories of the movie (images: Getty)
I started my stay at the delectable Hob Nob Inn, a timbered belle dripping in homely, old-world charm fit for a sea captain, with marshmallow-soft beds, and perfectly located five minutes’ walk from the harbour.
On my first morning here, as I wandered down a Main Street rioting with cherry blossom against white clapboard facades, I could have been walking through Amity: I half expected to bump into Chief Brody, the protagonist played by Roy Scheider.
To see just how closely life imitates art, I went on an ingeniously immersive Jaws tour, run by cineaste Mike Currid of the Edgartown Tour Company, which walks you through locations used in the film. As we peeked in a side window of the Town Hall, Mike whipped out his iPad and showed us the scene when Quint, the shark hunter, scrapes his nails down the blackboard to quieten the panicked gathering. Shiver me timbers – it was the very room I was looking at.
A moment later a nondescript house morphed into the Amity Island Police Department with another clip of the chief leaving the building and walking down the street. The hairs on my arms were on end; I was around seven when I first saw “the film that emptied beaches and filled cinemas”, and as picture-postcard Edgartown was infused with Seventies nostalgia, I was back being that child again.
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Candy-Coloured Congregation Of Restaurants And Bars
Afterwards I wandered Edgartown’s patrician streets past home-made ice-cream parlours, galleries and the white-timbered house of Captain Valentine Pease, Melville’s inspiration for Captain Ahab.
Oak Bluffs - known to all Jaws buffs
Then on past the Chappaquiddick Ferry, and dockside – where Brody is slapped by the mother of a boy killed by the marauding shark – down a sandy path to the town’s lighthouse. The simple aesthetic of the denim sky, bottle-green sea and backdrop of grey timber houses was so achingly perfect, I felt as though I had walked into an Edward Hopper painting.
Come sunset, I was heading along Beach Road (over the bridge the shark makes its entrance into the pond) to the town of Oak Bluffs, where the Brody family’s house can still be found near East Chop lighthouse. Oak Bluffs, a candy-coloured congregation of restaurants and bars, is much more 'kiss-me-quick' than stately Edgartown.
The crowning building here is the downright Psycho-esque Wesley Hotel, glowering on the water’s edge like some nefarious old timer. Nearby, Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company has possibly the best clam chowder soup in the Cape, while its oysters dance a salty tango across your taste buds. Look for the oldest carousel in America opposite and you’ll find the place.
Remember The Campfire Scene? It Was Shot Here
That night, though, I was dining at The Black Dog Tavern on the edge of Vineyard Haven’s harbour (the next town on from Oak Bluffs). As I wrestled a mouth-wateringly fresh lobster, hurricane lamps casting beams across the nautical wood interior, the waiter gifted me my next lead: “The Orca – you remember the fishing boat they sailed in? Those film folk left it up in Menemsha.” '”Menemsha’?” I asked. “Yah, the place Quint had his workshop.”
Menemsha. It has a slight biblical roll on the tongue, like Ishmael or Ahab.
In Menemsha: It could have been made for the movie
The next morning I was heading there, dropping in at Katama Beach; a long ribbon of white sand buttressed by grassy bluffs. Remember that pre-credits campfire scene, the boy following the Amazonian girl as she strips off in the dunes and dives into the water for her final swim? It was filmed here.
As I headed on west through vernal hollows of tupelo and oak, segueing to fields dotted with barns, galloping horses and folksy general stores, I was reminded of something from The Wizard of Oz.
'Up Island' (though it’s actually the west side of the island) is fabulously pretty and decidedly more bohemian than the rest of the Vineyard; it’s also famous for its Wampanoag Indians, and its resident famous people – anyone from James Taylor to Billy Joel has sought the quiet life here.
Sorry Remains Of The Vultured Orca
Sitting on the multicoloured cliffs of Aquinnah, Gay Head lighthouse marked the westerly extremity of the island and was the site of that grafittied billboard in Jaws, with the girl on the lilo being chased by a shark.
The lighthouse at West Chop
Across the bay, no more than five minutes’ drive away, I found the somnolent fishing hamlet of Menemsha. Ruggedly unpretentious – its dock a tangle of marl-grey houses, sea ropes, crayon-coloured lobster pots and salt-blasted fishermen – here stood Quint’s workshop.
Even more poignantly, opposite, just across the estuary, were the sorry remains of The Orca. A few years ago the ship was still visible, until cinephiles started vulturing bits of the hull; now just a few ribs of timber sinking into the sand are all that is left to tell the tale.
Ridiculously sentimental for a boat I never sailed in, I might as well be Jason crying for the demise of the Argo. But isn’t that the brilliance of Jaws? With its everyman magnetism, we all feel like we’ve been in that boat, on that journey out to sea.
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This article was written by Richard Waters from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.